A yard may be small, but there's room for roses

Home-grown: City gardeners knew the value of these fragrant buds.

May 01, 1999|By JACQUES KELLY

FOR THOSE WHO like to cut a fresh rose on a May morning, the limitations of a Guilford Avenue rowhouse garden meant nothing.

We may have lived in the air-polluted city. We had hours of deep shadow cast by an adjoining apartment house. Our urban greensward was about as large as some of our suburban friends' living room rugs. But we always had roses -- bowls and vases full of them from May through November, maybe December.

One of my earliest recollections of our backyard garden is intertwined billowing white clouds of laundry, the clotheslines and the wooden props used to support the clothes and bed linens of a household of 12 people.

Like many of our neighbors, we were proud of our roses, as we were of the postage-stamp of grass in the back. It was a point of honor that it be kept up. If nothing else, the alleys were well-used by our neighbors, and garden-gazing was a pastime engaged in by those who knew the backyard shortcuts to the corner stores and soda fountains.

My great Aunt Cora was the chief gardener in the house, a role much coveted by my mother, her niece. They had a serious garden rivalry and it was best to disappear on those occasions when the two tangled.

Mostly they didn't, but they were protective of their roses, the bushes that each had been given or bought. For example, a hybrid tea rose called the Doctor was a favorite of Aunt Cora. Her son Jimmie was a surgeon and she associated it with him. My mother liked her Queen Elizabeth because it was a strong producer.

Cora, ever the Baltimore traditionalist, liked to do her garden shopping in the most asphalted part of Baltimore -- at the old J. Mann's seed company on Forrest Street opposite the Belair Market in Oldtown.

As a child, I was sentenced to carry home for her a bag of dehydrated cow manure on the No. 8 streetcar. "Why, it hardly smells at all," Cora assured me.

On another occasion, when I went into deepest hiding, she tore off after a small circus parade that marched across 29th Street in search of elephant manure, and was richly rewarded. Cora worked 29th Street for an hour with a flat-bladed shovel. What the elephants left behind produced gorgeous blossoms the rest of that growing season. The neighbors giggled and chattered over this stunt for decades. Our gardeners considered the elephant's gift a rich one indeed.

My mother's best friend Bertha Hollander lived in Philadelphia. When we visited, my father was not allowed to use either Route 40 or I-95. Those ways would have been too simple and direct.

My mother preferred Route One, the way of her childhood and, outside Oxford, Penn., the home of Star Roses. She thought that locally grown roses were healthier -- and besides, she could smoke her signature Lucky Strike while walking through the display beds as she ordered the employees to run her selections to the car's trunk. Planted, weeded and fertilized, those roses bloomed and bloomed year after year.

And when the bouquets were cut, they often went right out the front door, a gift to someone who needed the lift that only a home-grown rose delivers on a May morning.

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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